Burnout: When bad things happen to good executive protection agents

February 28, 2018 - By Christian West & Brian Jantzen

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Job burnout, or work-related stress, is an ever-present risk for busy EP agents. While almost none of the alpha types in our industry are willing to admit it, many of us have worked the crazy hours that lead up to burnout – and more than a few of us have discovered the negative consequences of work-related stress too late.

In this blog, we take a look at what causes burnout, and what EP agents and managers – as well as our clients – can do to prevent it.

What is job burnout?

According to the WHO, job burnout, or what is more formally referred to as work-related stress is “the response people may have when presented with work demands and pressures that are not matched to their knowledge and abilities and which challenge their ability to cope.”

We’re not talking about people who sometimes feel stressed about their jobs. That’s the case for practically everyone these days. We’re talking about what happens when severe stress becomes so chronic and so bad that you no longer function on the job, at home, or anywhere else.

Folks who have truly burned out are not a pretty sight. They’re basically unable to work anymore and often need months to recuperate. Even though many used to be high performers, they now feel as though they can’t get anything right and are depressed and cynical. The symptoms of job-related stress are many and varied, but typically include several of the nasty things listed below – not exactly traits you want in your EP agent:

  • Cognitive and physical fatigue
  • Attention disorders, forgetfulness and inability to concentrate
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety, anger and depression
  • Decreased immune response and increased illness

People suffering from job burnout don’t enjoy their work anymore – far from it. They feel inadequate and pessimistic, alone and apathetic, and are often irritable, pushing away well-meaning colleagues that might want to help. And they don’t perform well in their jobs anymore, either. Productivity plummets and the list of things to do just grows and grows, further adding to the sense of hopelessness.

Some stress is fine – but not too much for too long

Not all stress is actually bad. In evolutionary terms, stress is a physical response that prepares us for either fight or flight. We’ve evolved to rely on stress to give us the hormonal jolt that enables us to sprint away from saber-toothed tigers or battle the Neanderthal trying to steal our food. Here in 2018, stress still helps us deal with dangerous situations when they arise, whether it’s slamming on the brakes in traffic or getting ready to speak in public.

The problem in our modern work world is that we might still enter stress mode even when fight or flight are not viable or appropriate options. If we remain stressed for long periods of time it affects us cognitively, emotionally and behaviorally, and can eventually lead to job burnout.

Everyone responds to stress and stress on the job differently. What makes one person stressed doesn’t necessarily bother the next. But those suffering from job burnout do share some common traits: the feeling of being overwhelmed by job demands is one; a sense of being out of control to do something about them is another.

Compared to many other things that can go wrong, burnout is sneaky. Nobody says “Oh, I think I’m beginning to get burned out, I’d better do something about it.” Instead, burnout tends to make itself known after the fact, too late to prevent it.

Sadly, this also happens to the high-achieving alpha types that are passionate about their jobs. Their can-do mentality means they keep ramping up their workloads as they push themselves to achieve even more. Work overload is the single largest reason for burnout. People issues come in second. Which leads us directly to executive protection.

Why executive protection agents are prime candidates for burnout

Executive protection work is often complex, sensitive and high-stress. In addition to their prominence and need for security, the principals we protect are typically extremely busy individuals due to their workloads, travel schedules, obligations, and wealth. Days and weeks are long and often booked end to end. It’s no wonder that some of our principals burn out on occasion and need time to recuperate.

But let’s remember that the protectors of these principals typically have even longer schedules and must stay alert and creative non-stop in order to do their jobs properly. The EP agent needs to arrive at the travel destination prior to the principal, adding a day or maybe two of travel time compared to the principal’s. Once the principal arrives, the agent gets up before him or her to prepare for the day and arrive at the first pickup location on time and will not go to sleep until well after the principal has securely arrived at the accommodations for the night.

And when you’re on active EP duty there is never time to pull the plug for an hour or two or even five minutes. Although taking a nap during a car ride could be a nice way to get a leg up on jet lag, as the principal might, this is never an option when you’re working a detail.

Travelling 200+ days a year to prepare and provide executive protection is a sure-fire recipe for job burnout.  Want to be absolutely sure that even the toughest people get burned out? Then simply keep this rhythm up for several years. If you have a knee-jerk “No problem, I can handle it” response ready for this, then congratulations. You’re like a lot of people in our business and after you crash and burn you can do something else.  But seriously: this is not responsible behavior. You are neglecting your duty of care to yourself, your team and your principal.

There are other stress factors that apply here, too. We often say that EP agents are only as good as their last detail and that wearing the wrong kind of shoes on the wrong day can get you fired just as easily as budget cuts. The pressure to perform is constant and definitely adds to the stress quotient.

4 ways to combat burnout in executive protection

1. Staff, fund and manage programs so that everyone has a realistic workload and is well motivated: Corporate executive protection is a relatively young industry, and professional standards for staffing levels are not well established.

Prominent people with insanely tough schedules might say “I just need one person to provide protection”, and since they are the boss, they will probably get what they ask for. This is a classic mistake based on a misunderstanding of the EP agent’s role and lack of program management experience. It will certainly contribute to agent burnout, and it will also pave the way to program failure unless corrected. New programs led by unproven managers often make similar errors.

The solution is easy to prescribe but not always as simple to implement: Structure and staff programs realistically so that they do not depend on one person but are dimensioned for success (see our upcoming blog for more information on how to do this). Manage them professionally, because proper management of EP programs is critical to prevent burnout but is often an issue in small or immature programs. Career planning for agents so they don’t have to maintain intense travel schedules year in, year out is also essential, as is compensating agents through decent salaries and benefits.

2. Watch for systemic burnout indicators: Our industry has some very gritty people with the ability to block out fatigue and hardship.  But there is a shelf-life to this approach, and due to burnout’s insidious nature, you often won’t know you’ve reached someone’s limit until you have passed it.

Each person is different and the path to burn-out can be longer or shorter depending on the individual. However, cognitive and physical fatigue will hit a person prior to actual burn-out. During those times the risks of failure in your job increases. Increased sick leave and agent turnover can indicate something’s wrong, but this can be difficult in small programs.

3. Maintain dialogue with at-risk agents: If you already know someone is working too much, this person is at risk for burnout. You need to keep special tabs on him or her through more frequent check-ins and active listening.

Remember, perceived lack of control is one of the subjective experiences that is widely associated with burnout. By staying in touch with the employee and zooming in on this as well as work overload and any people-related issues, you might be able to make a bad situation better.

4. Recruit carefully: Although everyone does respond differently to stress, some people are better suited to the ambiguities and heavy travel schedules peculiar to executive protection.

Neurotic personality types won’t thrive, nor will people who need a lot of predictability in how their day is going to play out. See our blog on the subject for further tips.

Let’s fight burnout in the executive protection industry

The challenges of personal protection require forward thinking, creative problem solving (often times quickly) and the ability to stay alert for many hours each day. In the worst-case scenario, the agent is there to protect the life of the principal.

You want your people to be at their highest level of performance all the time. Burnout not only undermines the ability of EP agents to perform this critical job, it ruins careers and our industry’s reputation, too. Let’s prevent it by increasing our awareness of how it works and being willing to face it head on – and owning up to the responsibility we have as colleagues, managers and clients to do what we can to establish EP programs that would rather build people up than burn them out.


Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

Christian West

Founder and CEO

Christian has been active in the executive protection industry since the late 1980s, when he worked for Danish musicians who relocated to Hollywood. Upon returning to Denmark, he founded his own EP company, which he quickly grew into Scandinavia’s largest, before it was acquired by Securitas.

Christian founded AS Solution in 2003, and again in 2009 followed his international clients to the US, where he is now based. An active member of ASIS and a leader in the corporate executive protection industry, Christian has personally planned and led high-profile engagements in over 76 countries for a wide variety of corporate and high net worth individual clients, including the international roadshow for the biggest IPO in history.

Brian Jantzen

Head of AS Solution

After leaving the US Marine Corps as a captain in the early 1990s, Brian has pioneered corporate executive protection services internationally for Fortune 500 companies, high net worth families and NGOs.

Brian has provided protection at the highest levels of corporate and philanthropic environments in over 35 countries. With his demonstrated ability to align security operations with both the client’s organizational goals and personal preferences, Brian uses his strong relationship building, collaboration and project and vendor management expertise to create security solutions that deliver program efficiencies and customer satisfaction. Brian graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Sociology and is the subject matter expert chair for the ASIS Executive Protection Council.